In my childhood growing up in rural Ireland, my grandmother and indeed her generation had lots of little sayings which, by and large, were very helpful. ‘Waste not, want not.” “A stitch in time saves nine” etc. You might say these sayings came from the tradition of the elders. But that doesn’t mean they all had a divine stamp of approval to them. One in particular was far from helpful. ‘Sticks and stones can break your bones but names can never hurt you.’ This could not be more wrong. Broken bones will mend but we do not always recover from cruel words. Corporal punishment was in vogue in schools then but sometimes as kids we would prefer to be slapped rather down hear some cruel words spat out at us from an irate teacher. Even as adults the last thing we want is be given a bad name or be slandered by someone.The opposite can be true as well. There are words that are healing and encouraging. Just for someone to say to us, “You’re not alone, I’m here for you” can do wonders for us when we feel bereft of support. Words of affection and support can strengthen and transform us. The simple phrase “I love you” can turn life from black and white to Technicolour. There is definitely power in words.
The Ten Commandments, frequently referred to as the “ten words”, have power as well. Today we are more likely to see laws as restrictions on life partly because there are so many in this complex society of ours. The rules of the road are but one example of this. But for the Israelites, as a new nation finding its feet, they definitely were not seen as restrictive. These ten words were more like ten teachings protecting and guiding God’s people through the difficulties and hazards of life.
In the first reading today we meet Moses at the end of his life. His people were about to enter the Promised Land but he, as an old man, knows that he will not enter with them. So here he is urging them to still adhere to the Laws of God. These guided them safely in the past and will give them the necessary wisdom and discernment for the future. They must diligently follow these laws and they are not to be tampered with. “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” For Moses these ten words are life-giving and will insure that Israel will be a great nation for no other nation on earth are blessed with such life-giving laws.
When it comes to the New Testament we are met with a multitude of laws, so much so that there are prescriptions down to the very basics of washing of hands before meals. How did it all get so complicated? As far as Jesus is concerned the ten words of Moses are lost in this vast number of laws that are of human rather than divine origin. “You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human tradtions.” Furthermore, because of his close contact with the poor, Jesus is very aware that these same laws only serve to ostracise the poor by naming and shaming them as unclean and outside the mercy of God. Therefore the efforts of the Pharisees to venerate the tradition of the elders and attribute divine authority to it simply doesn’t wash with Jesus. As far as Jesus is concerned one should never confuse God’s will with what is a fruit of human endeavor.
For Jesus what is at stake is a far bigger battle, that of the Prince of darkness against the Prince of Light. His very appearance on this earth as the Prince of Light stirred up the powers of darkness. Like Moses Jesus wants us to go back to the pristine ten commandments so as to protect ourselves against the evil that would engulf us. Let us look at the list of things that he calls evil coming from the heart of man. We see murder (5th commandment), fornication and licentiousness (6th Commandment), theft (7th commandment), deceit and slander (9th commandment), avarice and envy (10th commandment), with pride, folly and wickedness involved in all ten of them. Is this not a list of the crimes that plague this beautiful country of South Africa at the moment? Jesus was getting back to basics by reminding them that God’s commandments are more important than the traditions that had become the sole concern of the Pharisees of his day.
The letter of James today is a very practical and positive response to God’s commandments. “Pure and undefiled” religion is caring for others, loving your neighbour, especially those who can’t care for themselves like widows and orphans, and not following the ways, the traditions of the ungodly world. James also adds that we need not to just listen to God’s word, but we have to follow through and do it.
It would also be a serious mistake today to keep the Church a prisoner of the human traditions of our ancestors, when everything is calling us to a profound conversion to Jesus Christ, our only Teacher and Lord. What should worry us isn’t conserving the past intact, but making possible the birth of a Church and some Christian communities that are capable of reproducing the Gospel faithfully and actualizing the project of God’s Reign in today’s society.
Our first responsibility isn’t repeating the past, but making it possible to welcome Jesus Christ in our days, without covering him up or obscuring him with human traditions, no matter how venerable they may seem to be to us.
Sunday, August 30, 2015